Monday, August 24, 2015

Travelogue 644 – August 24
Vinyl in the Desert
Part Three

Menna and I have taken a bike ride. We have ridden into nearby Schiedam. We are resting now at the nameless bar I’ve inducted into my circle of watering holes. It’s a nice summer spot, with a terrace outside, nestled in a small sloping plaza among the buildings of old Schiedam. At the top of the slope is a narrow shopping street, dreary in its iteration of storefront windows, reminiscent of scenes in England, where streets run on in two-storey monotony. This little space opens up suddenly to one side of the shopping street, and once upon a time it was just a sweeping brick slope down to the curving alleyways below, where small houses squeeze together, shoulder to shoulder. I’ve seen photos from a hundred years ago, people standing awkwardly, the way they did for those old pictures, standing among the same buildings. There is no terrace, but an open and undeveloped space.

One of those houses is now the bar, and the slope has been excavated for the terrace. The patio sits on its disc of concrete balanced in between, a few steps up to the road, a few steps down to the bar. There are placed there the standard European outdoor table sets, with umbrellas and the fake cane chairs. Sitting there, I can see the roof and spire of Town Hall rising above the steepled roofs of the houses on their way down the slope. When I face that direction, the used bookstore is behind me. The shop occupies the bottom floor of a nice little art deco construction with curving face in yellow brick. The bookshop owner sits among his piles of books, looking uncertain. He asks what it is you’re looking for, gestures an invitation to browse. He parks carts of old paperbacks against the railing overlooking the terrace. Across the plaza from the bookstore is a nice old building, straddling the juncture of the shopping street above and the alleyways down below. There’s a drop of almost two meters from storefront on the shopping street down to the other street below. I like to study the building from the side, figuring out how they solved the drop in altitude. There’s not quite enough of a drop to add another complete floor. It’s clear that there must be a break between levels front and back, and I try to imagine where that happens. There are no telling lines among the brick of the exterior, tracing floors or stairs. It’s hard to tell from the placement of the windows on the side and the back, which seem placed rather by whimsy than by plan, small and staggered on the side, long and low in the back, making it look like a shady student flat on the alley. It’s an odd complement to the tidy children’s clothing shop in front.

I start to tell Menna about my encounter with the 70s in the morning, and by proxy, with my brother and his family in their youth. This one song, I say, it makes me think of that time. She doesn’t know the music I’m referencing. She assumes I’m frustrated by that. But I find it refreshing that someone doesn’t have the same song catalogue in her head. ‘Imagine taking a long trip, but everywhere you travel you hear Amharic. You’re in a hotel in Peru, and a man from China is speaking Amharic with the German woman. Then you notice they’re playing Aster in the hotel bar. How would you feel?’ But that’s something totally different, she says. That’s true. There is no very effective analogy to be made.

There are seats and tables placed just before the entrance of the bar. This is apparently where the regulars prefer to hang out. There are two guys passing a guitar back and forth, trading off on picking familiar rock riffs. They are both over fifty, and looking like they were once the town’s aspiring rock stars. One is tattooed and bug-eyed, glancing around conspiratorially, grinning sarcastically. He wears flared bell-bottoms with flaps sewn in in the colours of the Union Jack. The other looks like a long-haired Bill Nighy after years on Skid Row. He has the slightest soul patch, and one thin line for a moustache. He might just have woken. They start quietly spending as much time smoking and staring as they do playing the guitar. They strum quietly, without finishing more than a phrase.

The bar crowd doesn’t mind, and beer emboldens the two. They sing a few lines. A few regulars respond, adding voices. The songs are recognizable. Everyone knows at least a few of the words. Everyone but Menna. She’s enjoying, while also uncomfortable. It’s hard to say what makes her more uncomfortable, everyone singing snatches of songs she doesn’t know or the increasing volume. It’s not surprising that Menna finds white Dutch culture intimidating. They are loud and abrupt. It’s a culture of big, clumsy uncles.

‘My baby, she’s got it. I’m your Venus ….’ They’re laughing, and the guitar changes hands. The young bartender wants to showcase his opening to ‘Stairway to Heaven’. The old rock stars are supportive, give him some quiet applause, take back the guitar.

They play a familiar riff. ‘Ground control to Major Tom,’ one sings, and people are turning from the terrace to sing along. Another haunting song from the 70s. We’re lost in space, and alone.

I’m thinking again of the morning’s encounter with the 70s, time collapsing, the old hopes and sentiments discovered so close at hand. The line between two points in biography doesn’t always pass through the events separating them, but through space. Nothing has been done, no progress charted. One senses the long time again, uncompromised.

‘Here am I sitting in a tin can,’ one intrepid bar fly continues, and he gets a laugh for his efforts. Everyone knows a line or two. I’m marvelling again how unifying are the small tokens of Anglo-American pop culture. It’s wonderful. And then it’s disappointing. Sometimes I’d rather truly be set adrift in space. Maybe it’s what I wanted to say to Menna, that being American is to occasionally feel cheated of the sensation of being lost. It’s a great privilege for the traveller.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Travelogue 643 – August 23
Vinyl in the Desert
Part Two

The café is in a 70s mood this summer. It’s nice for me. I came of age among these songs. I believe the 70s are a classic period for pop music. The forms birthed in the 60s find full expression in the 70s. And what entirely new form have we seen since? All the tired formats of 2015 were fresh in the 70s, from rap to R&B to punk to metal. I can’t imagine what the pretty young toughs next door experience when they hear stuff from the 70s. I’m sure they nod their heads in a form of recognition. Kids have always been tempted to boast of their encyclopaedic knowledge of pop music. But what is the aesthetic experience for them? They clearly prefer their Hello Kitty dance beats. What kind of evolution of aesthetics does that represent? Trace it back to granddaddy Barry Gibb? I don’t know.

It’s nice for me that the 70s is popular in Holland. Different cultures have their own music. Different cultures have their tastes in Western music. In Ethiopia, there’s an appetite for R&B and reggae. In Holland, tastes run more toward old rock and soul.

Now it’s Elton John offering his 1972 hit, ‘Rocket Man’, a song that never fails to trigger sentiment in me. The summer I connected with that song lives in me through the song. It was not 1972, but it was still the same decade. I was visiting my brother in Tacoma, Washington, where he was based while he was happily flying big planes through the sky, maybe for the Air Force, maybe for American Airlines. I forget which it was now.

I was running amid the lush green of Washington State, already a marathoner at heart, never lacking the energy to attack long roads. I was young, in the middle of high school, and even younger than my years, daring to entertain phantoms of optimism. I had a job untangling hope from sadness. My childhood had been a dance with tragedy, Daddy something of a brute, and Mom beaten into long, lingering apathy and sadness.

Washington had forests! That was novelty for me, having grown up in dry Southern California. It was so green, and the green was everywhere. I loved it. I was charting my miles during the summer. I wanted to be a champion during the coming school year. I was a teenager. I was learning how to want things fiercely. Desire is an easy lesson. Still ahead was the long road learning to manage desire, to live with it. I’m building my endurance, day by day.

At my brother’s house, I listen to ‘Rocket Man’ with a kind of studious intensity. There’s an open-handed guitar chord and then the rising synthetic tone like lift-off. The refrain starts again, ‘And I think it’s going to be a long, long time.’

There’s a poignancy to the statement, even standing alone. There’s a longing inside it, and my marathoner mind senses it’s the long time itself that the space man longs for. This is the romance of the road being birthed in my young mind.

The moment survives for me. I can still picture the salon of my brother’s house, the shag carpets, the stereo system. The windows opening to views of green trees. There are vestiges of thoughts in the memory, like ghost forms. I’m already thinking about writing. There’s a plot for a novel buzzing around my head, set during the American Revolution, something heroic, something set among green East Coast forests, looking like Washington forests. The story must feature Native Americans, must follow them into the shadows of the trees.

I sense the boy’s ambitions, the anticipations. I’m thinking about new school year. I’m thinking about the cross country season. I’m thinking about girls. My brother and his wife are starting their lives. A baby is on the way. All this is a mystery. How does one arrive at a place like this in life? I have no idea.

I’ll play the song one more time. The music is composed to open out open space when the refrain begins, ‘I think it’s going to be a long, long time.’ It captures a sensation so perfectly, a sense of surmounting a long plateau and the sky opening out before me. It’s as though I were created to travel a long ways. There’s no way to understand that.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Travelogue 642 – August 22
Vinyl in the Desert
Part One

It seems as though there’s a lot of 70s going on at my café lately. Is it a summer flavour? I’m hearing songs reminding me of my childhood. It stops me, evokes something, memories and their feelings.

As I get older, I realize just how universal music is not. I can write this after a night of listening involuntarily to the tunes of today’s youth. My young neighbours have a taste for a sound that I can find no sympathy for whatsoever. It sounds to me like synthetic dance beats for pre-teens, looping with vapid insistence. ‘So fun, so fun,’ the songs posit with a kind of Hello Kitty creepy charm. My head spins with it. Outside the neighbours’ apartment are an assortment of young men dressed in thuggish themes, nodding their heads with sleepy eyes, so self-consciously tough they can barely move. And this is the music they play tough to. I find it baffling, an image that has so far overshot comic that it becomes a kind of Zen riddle. In this brave new world, Sartre is the old country bishop, his notions of the Absurd quaint.

My father says, ‘It all sounds the same.’ The same beat, the same guitar noise. The same boyish, undeveloped voices. ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah,’ he parodies the Beatles, not even aware how dated his mocking reference is. My eldest brother has hair to his shoulder. He dances in his room to rock and roll. Vinyl is the new flag.

At home we’re forced to listen to Dad’s music, the happy swagger and Italian voicings of the Rat Pack and their ilk, the gruff, atonal musings of Johnny Cash, the excesses of Tijuana Brass. At this distance, his music has gained a prestige he would have appreciated. I don’t remember disliking any of it. But it was suspect, being Dad’s music. I didn’t understand my brother’s music. I was too young. His passion about it was also suspect. I would have to re-discover music in my own time.

The music Dad despised and my brother loved now forms a canon, surviving the mixed feelings about the generation that produced it, surviving even the tide of forgetfulness. Kids sing along to protest songs without one complete notion about Vietnam, unable to pick out Nixon from a line-up, as likely as not to believe your stories of how Frederick Douglass and Martin Luther King shook hands once at the Chicago Democratic Convention. They hear the opening harmonics in ‘For What It's Worth’ by Buffalo Springfield, and they start in right away with the words. I sense that the 60s has been distilled to a dozen images in most minds, blurred images like old colour TV, images that reference hippies and civil rights and protesters holding up the peace sign. But all images serve the music. In the popular imagination, the 60s is music. Vinyl was currency.

Music makes me think of the soul. It has the same characteristics, being insubstantial and being fleeting. It leads one to religious ideas. A good song passes too quickly, leaves an idea, makes one wonder about a God that allows so much beauty to pass.

I live too much in Time, a place like a sandy desert, where all trace of passage is blown clean in short order. I find a beautiful melody to be a challenge to the state of nature. It’s like a crystal suspended in mid-air for just a moment. When it vanishes it does so with a question. Why?

Is there really a deity so free with Creation, running through Time like a maenad, throwing blossoms in every direction, and running on while the blossoms wilt? How many songs have been forgotten? How many things of beauty burned?

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Travelogue 641 – August 8
But They Built the Pyramids
Part Two

‘How about that beer?’ The three of us reclaim our bikes, Oscar labouring over the locks with intensity.

The beer is only a kilometre from our last stop, where we admired the heavy waters of the river that made Rotterdam king of commerce. We turn wobbly wheels toward the west, riding along the tram tracks of the Number Seven toward the yacht harbour and Het Park, until we reach the old bar and eetcafe, the Loos. We settle in at a table by the window, and we study the menu. Carolina loves England; we’ll order fish and chips.

I’m just back from Ethiopia, and I hear from Zuzana that her husband Oscar and her daughter Carolina are touring Holland and Belgium. The two have escaped from the annual trip to Oscar’s and Zuzana’s native Slovakia in order to see more of Europe. I tell her they have to call me. They have to stop in Rotterdam.

Before Amsterdam, they travelled to London. That was Carolina’s favourite. She says she will leave Canada at first opportunity. She will live in London. She will enjoy the fog and clouds. She will study somewhere where intellect is appreciated.

‘Carolina, can you check on the bikes?’ She stands, but I tell her I’m just joking. I’m indulging in new parent humour. Get-rid-of-the-kids humour. Not that I mind having Carolina around. In fact she is enjoyable company, making fun of her classmates in Canada, mimicking their broad and vapid American accents. She’s too smart. They’ve had to move her from the Catholic school, where the students used up most class time openly jeering their teachers.

Now she does her imitation of a British accent. She tells us the difference between Japanese and Korean pop music. She tells us the difference between Swedish and Norwegian. Oscar does an impression of a Russian bad guy in the movies.

Several rounds of excellent Belgian beers later, we succeed in convincing Carolina the bikes need checking on. We join her outside, and Oscar sets himself to the task of unlocking the cycles. He is studying each step of the process as though he were going to write a technical manual.

Our last stop on the tour is the Museum Park, where we coast in easy circles around the huge, paved skate park where Menna learned how to ride a bicycle. The sun has set and the dusk is settling over the buildings that surround the park. It’s a big sky, and looking up into it, I lean into long and free turns in the open space. I chase Carolina, and, listening to the bad counsel of the Belgian beer, I turn too sharply and make her fall. That was bad parenting. She’s fine, and Oscar shrugs. I lead away from the park, and back onto busy streets.

We’re returning the rental bikes at the Central Station. The man working the rentals was a Navy man. He travelled extensively in his youth. He’s seen Egypt and Peru and the Antilles.

‘We have nothing to complain about in Holland,’ he says. ‘But we complain.’ We smile. That’s life.

‘I’ve seen places where life is really hard,’ he says. ‘You see families in Peru. They have nothing. They live in shacks. But they smile. Here, well, we have everything, and we ….’ He puts on an exaggerated frown.

‘Egypt,’ he declares. ‘Have you seen the pyramids? Egypt was a great civilization. The center of the world. You should see it now.’

‘I have,’ I say.

‘You’ve never seen such poverty.’ He shakes his head. ‘How does that happen?’ He hands me the receipt.

‘We have nothing to complain about in Holland,’ he says. ‘Just the weather.’

It was beautiful today, though.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Travelogue 641 – August 7
But They Built the Pyramids
Part One

The man was in the Dutch navy when he was young. He travelled. He remarked when I knew my passport number by heart, didn’t need to pull the passport out in order to fill in his form. He knows what it’s like to be a traveller.

Now the old man works at the bicycle rental shop in the central train station. He is cheerful, and for a few minutes I envy him his job. ‘You need hand brakes or pedal brakes?’ He pantomimes the difference, in case his English isn’t hitting home.

I’m taking Oscar and his fourteen year-old girl out on a tour of Rotterdam. I knew Oscar and his wife back in my days in Slovakia, twenty years ago. The family is visiting Slovakia for the summer, but dad and daughter are breaking away, leaving mom and youngest daughter in Trencin.

It’s Holland. I insist we have to tour on bikes. Oscar is offering every excuse not to. ‘There’s plenty of public transit,’ he says. When the old man says there is a deposit required on each bike, Oscar shrugs his surrender, but I offer the cash. I have an ally in young Carolina. It sounds fun to her. They live in Canada now. There’s no time for anything but the auto there.

We push the bikes up the moving walkway to the open plaza in front of Central Station, and we’re ready. With a sigh, Oscar swings a leg over the bike.

It’s slow going. They pedal as though there were mountains to climb. They wobble a bit; they weave. They get in the way of other cyclists. But they are enjoying.

We make four stops on our lengthy circuit around Rotterdam. The first is to peek into the new Market Hall in the Blaak. The Blaak is the massive central square in old Rotterdam, where stand the famous cube houses, each positioned as though standing on one corner, windows tilted toward the ground or toward the sky.

The Blaak became the center of rebuilding the bombed city after the war, became a place to experiment with new architectural forms. In that spirit, a new building opened just last year across the plaza from the cube houses, the new Market Hall, a unique looking building, eleven storeys in the shape of a long archway, hollow inside and the interior filled with market stalls. The entire inside of the arch is painted with a very vivid mural of fruits and vegetables and flowers.

We take a lot of pictures, but it seems like the primary pleasure for Oscar is being off the bicycle. He also has fun figuring out the bike’s locks. There’s one lock mechanism governing two systems, one that closes a loop through the spokes at the top of the rear wheel, and the second a chain that locks with the same key. Oscar lavishes quite a bit of attention to locking the bicycle. It’s a puzzle. He is muttering, ‘We cannot lose this bicycle. Our friend has paid a deposit.’

Inside the Market Hall, he asks, ‘Is it time for that beer?’ I’ve promised him a beer stop. Not yet.

First we have to stop by the Maas, of course, where Carolina can take pictures beside the monument to the merchant marines fighting in WWII, the monument called the Bow for its grand design, the cutting edge of a ship’s bow breaking the waves; where we can admire the big Erasmus Bridge; where we can search among the flags along Boompjes Boulevard for Slovakia and Canada, reminding me of the way Tati and Menna searched for theirs a few weeks ago. It’s odd how flags awaken a sudden urge to identify oneself. There we are! Us. Canada. America. Ethiopia.

We look back over the waters of the big river. ‘Pretty.’ We nod. ‘Nice place.’ It is. ‘How about that beer?’

‘It’s not too bad, is it, old Rotterdam?’ the old man shrugs as he accepts our bicycles back. ‘Holland is not such a bad place. Nothing to complain about. Nothing but the weather.’ He smiles. ‘Just the weather.’

Thursday, August 06, 2015

Travelogue 640 – August 6
Looking Up
Part Three

It’s a wonderfully entertaining view from the third-floor balcony of the Addis Ababa office, an absorbing diversity of detail, lively window onto the variegated particularity of things. The hills of Kebena and Arat Kilo offer multiple tree-lined horizons, buildings new and old struggling to rise into view. Prominent among them is the dome of the Kidhane Meheret Catholic Church in Kebena. Dotting the nearest hill are the tin roofs of the houses of our districts good citizens, their flimsy gates, made of the same tin as the roofs, open onto the curving dirt road directly below, the quirky little road that you only find by driving through to the back of the Oil Libya gas station. The road is often empty. When it’s not, when our neighbours walk by, their voices rise all the way to the top floor. The staff pause to listen and laugh. Every so often, our meetings are interrupted by the abrupt call of a guard dog or the perplexing call of some bizarre bird or the whining summons of the pedlars selling their mops and brooms or garlic and eggs. I can see down into the neighbouring yard. If there is a women there, she is doing laundry. If it’s a man, he’s doing an odd assortment of energetic exercises, shirtless and earnest.

I return into the third-floor conference room, and I’m greeted by the project staff, working out their seat arrangements, some carrying in more chairs, some sitting with eyes down and notebooks open in front of them. They are still laughing, but they will settle down. I’m enjoying the laughter.

I know this routine. We all do. This staff and I have worked together for several years now, some longer than others, some for five years and more. It’s a strange form of intimacy, the sharing of ritual formality inside a broader context of something that isn’t friendship, but is not too, too far from it. They become silent, and we start. The formality is painful for me. Questions go unanswered. I have to prompt over and over to get discussion. Suddenly everyone is shy. Voices drop to a whisper.

This is culture again, inserting itself into every context. Speech is governed by it. Translation can bridge the gaps in language, but can’t bridge cultures. Two cultures meet in something like a ritualized stage play. Everything about communication is governed by culture, volume, gesture, eye contact, indicators of emotion, routes to a topic and through it. The only moderating influence is compassion.

I want to return to the balcony. I feel like I haven’t looked enough. I always feel that way. I’m hungry. I want to see more, spend more time watching. And I want to look into the sky. I want to drink it in. Watching it all day, I would understand nothing of it. Some insightful person invented the word ‘sublime’ for this purpose.

There’s a kindness to their nature. Are the Ethiopes more civilized? I would say they are, in certain ways. We in the developed world have conflated civilization with prosperity for so long, it is little wonder we are so cynical. We applaud the gangsters, spiritual and temporal. They’re entertaining.

Codified behaviours are aesthetic choices, ultimately. They are broad aesthetic choices formed more or less democratically, even across generations, and then enforced by the aristoi, the betters in society, for the good of all. It saves time when we have some things already decided. It comes packaged as culture. It’s a comfort. When we encounter other cultures, we celebrate our own.

After the meeting, I’ll stand on the balcony, drinking in the light. What is sublime transcends culture.

Baby likes to look at the light. She will smile laughingly while staring at the orange light spilling from the top of the bedroom lamp onto the wall, as though there were a spirit cavorting there, making silly faces just for her.

On the day before my Ethiopian trip, Menna and her mother have left me outside with Baby while they enter the Metro station to re-charge their transport cards.

There are three women walking by, three middle-aged Latinas, who have disembarked from one tram or other and are on their way home. They walk in a loose formation, barely together, shouting to each other. They remark on the daddy with her girl. They follow Baby’s gaze up into the sky, as I have been doing.

One calls out to me, ‘Meisje?’ Is she a girl? Yes, I say, and the woman nods as though vindicated in some long debate.

Another of the women follows Baby’s gaze up and she says, ‘El cielo’, the sky. She makes a gesture that says, behold. And one of her friends says, ‘Los angelitos.’ Baby sees the angels in the sky. The three women split here at the stairs and walk off in three directions.

Mother and daughter are returning, walking across the plaza, crossing the tram tracks. ‘Look, here comes mommy,’ I say to Baby. But she’s still studying the sky.

Wednesday, August 05, 2015

Travelogue 639 – August 5
Looking Up
Part Two

The day starts in Ethiopia, and I stand in the courtyard of my house. I look for the doves who have been calling. There is one perched above, atop the telephone pole. She watches the neighbourhood with a twitching concern. There is enough sunlight, on a clear morning during rainy season, to highlight the iridescence among her feathers. She looks noble. She examines every corner of the neighbourhood from her perch on top of the splintering pole. I salute her. I thank her and her cohort of angels for the good weather on my first morning in Ethiopia.

Holland is another place where one has to be grateful for sunshine. The sun is shining on the morning before I leave for Ethiopia. My little family is travelling into town. We pause at the top of the stairs leading to the tram station. Batu and Menna need to add money to their transport cards. So they walk together toward the Metro station, and I’m left with the baby in the plaza.

Baby likes to look at light. She finds the lamp in the room, or the nearest window, and she studies it for long spells. Now she is looking up into the sky.

I follow her serious gaze. At northern latitudes, the sky is higher, as though we were closer to that field of blue at the equators and then the globe pulls away as it curves. It’s a child’s way of thinking.

I have a vague memory from my days as a baby, the curious sensations of near and far, like separating the two for the first time, weighing the difference. It’s like a dream. How babies puzzle all this out, I cannot say. There’s this feeling in my recollection of being taught. At some fundamental level, the conclusion is unavoidable, teaching and learning are coded into the experience of life. Maybe it’s a pedagogist’s way of seeing the universe, and somewhat facile. But how the notion of it leads into such vast spaces. While we chatter about Donald Trump’s latest gaffe, millions of babies are deciphering colour, sound, dimension, light and shadow.

And the sky. Do we ever decipher that? Do we settle for a metaphor? Even as we look into it every day, it defies codification, interpretation, quantification, or packaging as a concept. It’s not empty; it’s not full. It’s infinite. One looks into infinity that direction. One meditates the sky like one might the unconscious. The picture doesn’t resolve.

The dove takes flight, dropping toward the wall of the compound and then flapping noisily to escape gravity, to dart over the roofs of the neighbouring houses.

I have to get ready for work. I will retreat from the sky, from the unconscious into the confinement of the office and the duties of the conscious. We adults take on modest projects, comprised of the modest single tasks, lined up one after the other. Who will make this call? Who will collect this subset of numbers? Who will buy the pencils?

I call a meeting. The Ethiopes are gracious. They are slow. It takes a while for them to make their way to the conference room on the top floor. Fortunately there is a balcony there, beyond a sliding glass door. I can stand there, above the small courtyard in front of the building, where the children attending our library can play. I can look out over our street, a mere bend in the dirt road. Two young women walk slowly by, in traditional skirts topped by modern jackets, their hair pinned up so it makes their scarves point toward the sky. They are laughing with each other. They never look up, so they never see me watching them. One by one, my staff drifts in behind me, taking seats at the big table.

Tuesday, August 04, 2015

Travelogue 638 – August 4
Looking Up
Part One

It’s rainy season. The old house in Shiro Meda is damp and chilly. I stay in bed for a while after I wake. I went to bed so early that I’m awake long before I need to be. The light through the curtains is dim still, slowly gathering strength.

I spent the night before last on an airliner – taking off at very last light in Germany and landing in the first light of day in Ethiopia. I rested a few hours at home and spent the balance of the day at the office.

I lie in bed, and I listen to the sounds of the neighbourhood, the greetings of neighbours in the street outside, the calls of the doves in the yard. It’s rainy season, and the damp has insinuated itself into everything. You don’t readily escape it. Even the sheets feel a little damp when I move.

I’m up. When I pull back the curtain, I see that the skies are clear. That’s a nice surprise. I love the mornings in Ethiopia, the field of equatorial sky, an essence of peace.

When Mimi and I emerged from the airport terminal yesterday, the ground was wet from recent rain. The clouds were breaking apart. We were safe from rain until afternoon. Mimi is my sister-in-law. She is the one to meet me at the airport these days. We walk across the parking lot, among travellers ad taxi men, and I thank her for meeting me so early in the morning. It’s no problem, she insists. The graciousness of the Ethiopians is so refined, so natural, I could believe it: coming to the airport at dawn on a work day is no inconvenience at all.

(The play has many acts and many costume changes. The scenes trade locations indulgently, and there are too many characters to track. There are all sorts of themes to the script, but the words all seem to return, almost monotonously, to the one called ‘culture’. What is culture? Why are human societies so insistent on it? The audience might become weary of it.)

‘How is work, Mimi?’ Mimi is such a hard worker. She is always working, and she is always working in the most thankless positions. In her last job, she spent years standing between corrupt management and her ravaged budget. All that that earned her was abuse. The new job was going so well, but her boss quit suddenly, and she’s working overtime again. I was reading recently a glib piece about the curse of competence, and I was thinking of Mimi as I read it.

Mimi and I walk through the parking lot, and the taxi drivers ask if we need a taxi. She says no. She has already called Shimeles. He meets us at the entrance to the parking lot. I recognize him among a hundred other taxis, in his boxy blue little pug of a Lada, stickers in the windows, advertising Jesus and Chelsea, and the white tube-like fittings along the sides.

Language prevents us from trading lengthy greetings, but we enjoy seeing each other again. It’s been a long time. I’ve been in Europe seeing to Baby and Menna. Shimeles asks after Baby, and I am a shamelessly happy daddy. ‘She is beautiful.’

We drop Mimi off at her place of work, place of misery. We arrive at my house, splashing through puddles in the cobblestone and the mud. I walk down the temperamental slope toward my house, down the road paved with neither asphalt nor cobblestone still. Some of the boys recognize me. The key to the gate becomes stuck in the lock. The gate rattles as I wrestle with it. The dogs inside bark. I am home again. Another scene.